Blue Crush is a surfer-babe movie so tactile it practically dunks the audience in the water.
As the pastel dawn breaks with psychedelic beauty over Maui, Anne Marie (Kate Bosworth), a tough but vulnerable apple-cheeked blond jock, and Eden (Michelle Rodriguez) and Lena (Sanoe Lake), the two buddies with whom she shares a tumbledown island home, get up hours before work to slip in some early board time. On the ocean surface, the camera floats and bobs and hangs out with them, much as it did in ''Jaws,'' and as the waves arrive, many of them 30 or 40 feet tall, we're invited to suddenly stare upward, the shiny aqua walls of water looming like Godzilla, as the surfers rise to their feet and stand tall on their boards, drawing on that most singular of athletic qualities. Sublime balance? Rock-hard calf muscles? Hardly. I'm talking about the willingness to plunge into a moment of absolute topsy-turvy, torso-ripping chaos.
''Blue Crush,'' an end-of-the-summer revel in beach, sun, surf, pretty faces, and buff bods (hey, there aren't even any serious bad guys -- just a few bad bellies), is an engaging, formulaic sports drama that carries a charge of genuine excitement. Powered by Blestenation's hip-hop remix of Bananarama's great ''Cruel Summer,'' the movie has a purely sense-orama dimension, yet John Stockwell, who cowrote and directed it, proves that it's more than possible to use thrill-ride techniques in a supple, nonbombastic way. His interweaving of digital effects, rapid-fire downshifts to slow motion and back, and whooshing, crashing, in-your-ears sound creates a foam peak momentum of exhilaration laced with anxiety.
As each new wave arrives and crests, a surfer will jockey to find an angle, and then, in that glorious instant when she's up and riding, the rush kicking in...that's when the hard part starts. The wave begins to curl and crash on top of her, and the surfer breaks left, threading herself through the eye -- a 60-ton tunnel of collapsing wave. The camera shows us just what it looks like, and more important what it feels like, when you're standing on a surging carpet of water that is breaking up into an avalanche of liquid force.
Kate Bosworth has such a perfect, American cheerleader-goddess look that it's easy, at first, not to register the character in her face. Yet she's playful in a brisk, no-nonsense way that grows on you; she gives Anne Marie the graceful, determined obsessiveness of an athlete who knows that she's fated to compete forever with herself.
It was a smart move to make a picture about new-style feminine surf bums without turning it into a teen-demagogic, girls-vs.-guys showdown. ''Blue Crush'' hardly has to proselytize for girl power -- it's there in every glance, every move, that Anne Marie and her friends make. The movie sketches out their lifestyle, showcasing the airy, occasionally gross drudgery of their day jobs as maids at a luxury hotel. The conflicts, however, are all in Anne Marie, a great surfer who longs to be a sponsored pro, but who's hobbled by hesitation because of the nearly fatal wipeout she suffered while trying to surf one of the island's ''pipe'' waves, which are so gigantic they're legendary mortal threats. The movie provides staggering underwater views of a ''hold down,'' when you're plunged, with total spatial disorientation, into the surf, submerged and trapped by the wave above, the coral reefs rising up to meet your head, the water exploding like a bomb. ''Blue Crush'' is built around Anne Marie's fear of that feeling every time she gets up on a board.
With just one week to go until the big pipe contest, Anne Marie, battling jitters, meets Matt (Matt Davis, from ''Legally Blonde''), a cuddly and chivalrous NFL quarterback who's vacationing at the hotel along with a crew of his teammates. Fed up with her job, she agrees to give him surf lessons, and they fall into bed. The trouble is...well, actually, the only real trouble is that the movie has to trump this up into some sort of bogus class/money/commitment issue, otherwise there wouldn't be a movie. As Eden, Michelle Rodriguez, a sexy spitfire who's in danger of turning into a ticker tape of attitude, doesn't have much to do apart from the thankless task of berating Anne Marie for copping out on surf practice. Later, Matt gets pushed around by bullies for the crime of surfing at a locals-only beach, at which point it may start to dawn on you that the movie is basically killing time before the contest.
It's worth the wait. The final 20 minutes of ''Blue Crush'' can stand as one of the few highlights in a movie summer of mostly hollow action-carnival fireworks. The trick, for once, isn't that we're watching superhuman stunts; it's that we're watching deeply human stunts. When Anne Marie gets tossed off that board, we're dying for her to stand up and face another cascading water wall, but the stakes could hardly be steeper. As the waves arrive, each one mightier than the last, ''Blue Crush'' invites us to acknowledge, and triumph over, something blockbusters like ''Attack of the XXX Spider-Clones'' merely fantasize their way out of: the fear of flying.